Fire at a Detroit-Area Chemical Plant Results in Hundreds of Homes Evacuated

ROMULUS, Mich. (AP) -- Four-year-old Shade Courtney and his 2-year-old sister Sierra had just gone to bed Tuesday night when their mother woke them up and told them they had to leave their home.

They ended up at Wayne Memorial High School where about 300 other Wayne residents had been evacuated after a series of explosions and fires at a chemical plant in nearby Romulus. At 3 a.m. EDT, Shade and Sierra were still awake, sharing a cot in a hallway and eating chocolate chip cookies.

Their mom, Kathleen Dugger, 26, said she chose to heard to the school after hearing news reports that fumes from the fire could harm children and the elderly.

''It could be safe, but you don't want to take that chance,'' she said.

Those who went to the school stayed in its performing arts center where they watched TV and movies, listened to the radio and were given food and drinks.

Some tried to sleep on cots, while others spent their night in their vehicles.

''Your nerves are on edge,'' said Monica Burroughs, 40.

No one was inside the E.Q. Resource Recovery Inc. plant when the fire started shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, authorities said. By Wednesday morning, 20 residents had been to Oakwood Healthcare System's hospitals in Wayne and Dearborn, where most complained of a burning sensation in their mouths or difficulty breathing, hospital spokesman Tom Worobec said.

At least 19 of the patients were treated and discharged before morning, he said.

Witnesses described a series of loud explosions at the plant that shook the ground and shot flames and smoke into the air. The company that owns the plant specializes in treating, recycling and disposing of hazardous material, such as airplane de-icing fluid and industrial paint solvents.

Seventeen-year-old Justin Boljesic lives about a half mile from the plant. He said he left home because he was afraid the fumes would damage his lungs. He said the explosions looked like lightening and sounded like thunder.

His friend, Andrew Crawford, 18, lives within a few blocks of the explosion site.

''My backyard lit up orange,'' he said from the high school, where he planned to spend the night. ''It was like a bomb went off.''

Romulus Mayor Alan R. Lambert said one tank exploded then set off explosions in others at the plant. He said air quality was one of the primary concerns and that the intensity of the fire and uncertainty about the chemicals kept firefighting crews from initially getting too close to the flames.

By dawn, the fire's intensity had subsided, but flames and smoke could still be seen coming from several tanks at the site. Dan Gilbert, a plant spokesman, said Wednesday that one of the facility's two tank farms had been mostly destroyed, but other areas were untouched. Those include the plant's wastewater treatment facility and an area where 55-gallon drums of chemicals are kept.

Gilbert said eight employees were working at the plant just before the explosion and were evacuated after an emergency horn sounded. All of them were accounted for and none of them requested medical treatment, he said.

''They really couldn't tell us any thing real concrete that would tell us what caused this,'' Gilbert said. ''As soon as the situation stabilizes, we're going to start an investigation.''

Firefighters were not able to determine a cause or what was burning because they were not able to get close enough due to the multiple explosions, said John Zech, city manager of neighboring Wayne.

Romulus Public Safety Director Chief Charles Kirby said that firefighters did not attack the fire because there were no lives in danger and no risk of the fire spreading.

''We've got a fire that's contained, and the fire chief thinks the best thing to do is let it burn,'' he said early Wednesday. ''There's not a hazard to anyone else as far as life or property.''

Kirby said that strong winds blowing chemical smoke prevented firefighters from attacking the plant from the front, while railroad tracks and the ground's elevation stopped them from accessing it from the back.

The fire caused eight metal tanks containing acetone, a chemical used to clean machinery, to melt to half their original size. Kirby had said the fire was expected to burn out Wednesday morning; fire officials Wednesday morning had no updated estimate.

He urged residents within a half-mile radius to evacuate and said it would be a good idea for people within a mile radius to do so as well.

Hazardous materials officials had tested the air quality and found no danger present, Kirby said. But workers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on their way to conduct more tests.

Wayne Mayor Al Haidous declared a state of emergency at about 10:10 p.m. He said winds were blowing the fumes and smoke from the plant northeast into his city.

The area included in the evacuation included about 1,000 homes in Wayne and another 150 in Romulus, but it was unclear how many people chose to leave, officials said.

Romulus is located about 25 miles southwest of Detroit and is home to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Mike Conway, a spokesman for the airport, said Wednesday morning that flights weren't affected by the fire.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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